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THE CUTTING EDGE / CYBERCULTURE | THE SCENE / UCLA

UCLA's New Web-sters

By Thursday, 1,000 Classes Will Have an Online Presence

September 22, 1997|KAREN KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's crunch time at UCLA. In offices, classrooms and computer labs throughout the famed Westwood campus, Bruins are scrambling to complete an ambitious assignment from the College of Letters and Science, the largest school in the university.

No, it's not finals time--in fact, classes for the fall quarter don't begin until later this week. And, for a change, it's not students who are under the gun, but faculty members and college administrators.

When school starts Thursday, each of the 1,000 classes offered by the College of Letters and Science this quarter will have its own outpost on the World Wide Web. Students will be able to go online to access the syllabus for every course, their homework assignments and supplemental course materials, such as pictures of famous paintings or a three-dimensional model of a strand of DNA. Students can even use the Web sites to post questions to their professors and conduct discussion sessions with fellow students.

At first blush, the project--known as the Instructional Enhancement Initiative--sounds like a strategy to further diminish the already small amount of direct contact between students and faculty. After all, 20,400 of UCLA's 23,400 undergraduates are in the College of Letters and Science, and lecture classes with hundreds of students are quite common.

But supporters say the $2.4-million-a-year project--believed to be the first of this scope at any university--will actually enhance communication between students and their professors.

"UCLA is seen as a big and impersonal place, and the faculty thought [using Web pages] would make them seem even more distant because they wouldn't have to see students face-to-face," said Craig Merlic, a chemistry professor who put his entire department online in 1995. "They found the opposite to be true. There are so many students who can't make office hours, and now they have another way to get feedback" from professors.

Merlic wrote a program called Virtual Office Hours that allows students to ask questions online at any time, and teachers typically respond within a day. Other students can read those questions and answers as well, although students may also pose questions confidentially.

The go-ahead for the college-wide project came three months ago as the 1996-97 school year was winding to a close. Like Merlic, several professors had already incorporated Web sites into their courses, but most of their colleagues had yet to venture into cyberspace.

Each of the College of Letters and Science's 800 faculty members received a "Web kit," including templates for home pages and help from a technical staff (composed largely of students) to help them customize their sites. Starting Thursday, students will be able to go to http://my.ucla.edu, type in their names and ID numbers and get a personalized "study list" with automatic links to the home pages for all of their classes.

"If I go into a classroom, there's a pretty strong expectation that there will be a blackboard there. But how it is used will vary widely," said Brian Copenhaver, a professor of history and philosophy who has spearheaded the Instructional Enhancement Initiative as the provost of the college. "It's the same with the Web sites--it's up to the individual teacher to decide how to use this."

Robert Boyd, an anthropology professor who teaches a course in human evolution, set up his course's Web site (http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/classes/fall97/anthro7) with fossil flash cards. Students are presented with pictures of skulls and asked, "Who am I?" and "When did I live?" The answers appear with the click of a button. Such material is often fodder for quizzes and exams, Boyd said.

At the Web site for a course in the low-tech field of classical mythology (http://www2.humnet.ucla.edu/webx?14@^4037@.ee6b8dd), students engaged in a spirited debate about whether Christianity is a myth.

"This is a subject that can interest people if you give them a forum to express that interest," said Kathryn Morgan, an associate professor of classics who taught the course earlier this year. However, she worries that the computer resources at the university might not accommodate all of the students who want to take advantage of the new system.

The College of Letters and Science is spending some of its Instructional Enhancement Initiative funds on 130 new computers and will upgrade 368 more, said spokesman Harlan Lebo. That will bring to 800 the total number of computers available. Funding for the program will come from a student fee of $2.50 per unit, which amounts to $150 annually per student, Lebo said.

Students say that most of the Web sites truly enhance the regular course materials. Although the proportion of "cool" sites is expected to fall with the new program, "even the bare-bones sites will still be helpful if they have the syllabus online," said Han Duong, a senior majoring in sociology.

Karen Kaplan covers technology, telecommunications and aerospace. She can be reached at karen.kaplan@latimes.com

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